Orbital Sciences Corporation (registered on the New York Stock Exchange as ORB, though commonly referred to as Orbital) is an American company which specializes in the manufacturing and launch of small- and medium-class space and rocket systems. Their client base includes the likes of the US Department of Defense and NASA. A pretty sizeable company, counting around 3800 employees of which half are engineers and scientists, Orbital was founded in 1982. The company conducted their 500th mission back in 2006 already and are currently projected to do more than a billion dollars in annual revenue.
Analysing the company very top-level, it consists of three segments. Launch Vehicles is where they develop rockets and engines of all sorts for different purposes, military and civilian. Satellite and Space Systems is where their geosynchronous Earth orbit communication satellites and other space-based communications service come from. Perhaps the most interesting – definitely for our focus here – is the Advanced Space Program where they besides developing small and medium class satellites for national security space systems also keep themselves busy with working on projects for human space flight and planetary exploration.
Orbital is involved with two prominent NASA programs: the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)/Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). More on those another time but the long story short, NASA started using private companies (both SpaceX and Orbital are contracted) recently for cost-effective supply missions to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. The Obama Administration is looking to expand this approach with partnerships to send NASA astronauts to the space station as soon as 2017.
Orbital launched its new Antares® rocket (a two-stage launch vehicle) for the first time in 2013 – see above for a fascinating time lapse video of its preparation for launch – and its Cygnus™ cargo logistics spacecraft is next scheduled to travel to the ISS mid December. They are pretty active on social media, and it is definitely worth checking out their YouTube channel as well where you can find gems like below’s highlights of their Cygnus demo mission – electronic dance tunes included. Definitely a company we will be following closely!
Looking at the near-future, we can safely start saying that the second half of this decade will see the rise of a new industry: space tourism. One of the companies that will do battle in this arena is XCOR Aerospace, a small American private rocket engine and spaceflight development company originally based at the Mojave Spaceport in Mojave, California. Its story starts in 1999, when four employees of Rotary Rocket’s rocket engine development team got laid off and decided that as they knew how to build rockets, they should have a shot at doing it themselves. Why should you pay attention to these guys? Well for one, they’ve got Buzz Aldrin on their side as you can see in this promotional campaign below by Unilever.
The Mojave Spaceport by the way is close by Edwards Air Force base, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Aside from Aldrin, they are going about it a whole different way. Forget booster rockets and secondary launch vehicles. XCOR‘s Lynx looks like a mini-Learjet, but unlike a Learjet, this tiny reusable space ship can take off and travel to space all by itself. It is the company’s plan to do this four times a day, six days a week, which would allow XCOR to accept passengers, space experiments, and small satellites for deployment on just two days’ notice! An impressive feat if they can deliver on it.
In terms of a schedule, we haven’t seen a date yet as to when the first paying customers will be able to fulfil their dream. XCOR‘s CEO Jeff Greason at one point mentioned that they are in “the homestretch toward the first flight” but that the process can’t be rushed. “We’re not an industry that can ship beta.” In another recent development, XCOR moved announced it would move its operations and research to Texas where it has been promised $10 million in economic-development incentives and a more relaxed regulatory regime. The corporate website still says California, so surely a TBC soon.
Dennis Tito is, while not the first non-astronaut in space, definitely the first space tourist. Self-funded with the capital he built up through his company Wilshire Associates (investment management since 1972), you wouldn’t exactly class him as the average neighbour living around the corner. With a Bachelor of Science in Astronautics and Aeronautics from NYU and a Master of Science in Engineering Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Tito was already well on his way to achieving his 40-year goal. On top of that, he is also a former scientist of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Being a pioneer is rarely easy, and often very expensive and the same goes for Tito. His milestone adventure set the New York born engineer and entrepreneur back $20 million. A small sum if you compare it to the value of the international clientele his company represents ($12.5 trillion) but definitely not even in the same ballpark as the flights Virgin Galactic, XCor Aerospace and others will offer in coming year (around the $100k-$250k mark seems to be the benchmark – given those flights won’t offer you to stay in orbit on board the ISS). Tito however did do it in 2001, over a decade before any of these companies would achieve flying humans into space on a commercial space flight. And he didn’t have an easy ride – NASA refused to take him up, or even train him on the grounds that he was not a trained astronaut… so the Russians trained him for 900 hours and facilitated the trip. Ten years before that, in 1991, he looked into going up into space on a trip to Moscow. Unfortunately his ticket became void in disastrous fashion, when the MIR space station fell uncontrollably from the sky that year.
It was space tourism company Space Adventures who brokered for Tito to join the Soyuz TM-32 mission in April 2001 and he ended up staying in orbit – most of that on board the International Space Station – for nearly 8 days. As we saw with later space tourists, he did several scientific experiments while doing his 128 orbits around the Earth. Not resting there, in January 2013 Tito founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation. Its mission: “launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018“. That trip would take 501 days taking into account the shortest route possible with today’s technology – although it would probably take a considerable amount of training for the astronauts selected to withstand the psychological and physical rigors of that journey.
“I often thought that if I did spend my last penny, I could live on social security for the rest of my life and still be happy, because I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. It was a sense of completeness – from then on, everything is a bonus. And the last 10 years, everything since then, has been just extra. And I think I am one of the happiest humans alive because of that.”
In May of last 2012, Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully rendezvous and connect with the International Space Station (ISS) and with that it put SpaceX firmly on the map. For those curious on how that would have looked like, check out the following link and make sure to drag your cursor around. Resupply missions aside (regular cargo flights started in October 2012), SpaceX is developing a crewed variant of the Dragon called DragonRider, which will be able to carry up to seven astronauts to and from low Earth orbit – those seven will probably be best of friends by the time they arrive as the pressurized part of the capsule is only 10 cubic metres “big” inside so it will be quite a cramped ride.
Taking the more conventional approach (unlike Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo combination), Dragon sits on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for lift off. The capsule is made up of a disposable cone, the spacecraft itself housing the astronauts (or specialized cargo) and the trunk, which can carry up to 14 cubic meters of cargo. You can see the specifications here. Its second resupply mission will take place this November, but Elon Musk, SpaceX‘s billionaire founder and CEO is already looking towards the future. In March this year he gave away some details about the second version, and it won’t be your conventional capsule anymore either. The next version will have side-mounted thruster pods and pop-out legs so it can land on solid ground. More details to be unveiled later this year; no more tweets telling them to go fishing then…
For a time table of milestones to look forward to, December 2013 will see a pad abort test (in which Dragon will use its abort engines to launch away from a stationary Falcon 9 rocket – it’s one of the safety tests required), followed by an in-flight abort test coming April 2014 (same test, but this time in flight), and the first crewed Dragon (DragonRider) flight is currently scheduled to happen mid-2015. The last in a series of impressive feats will then see a crewed spacecraft dock with ISS no sooner than December 2015.
SpaceDev, a subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corporation, is developing a very cool looking seven-seater spacecraft called Dream Chaser, designed to launch astronauts into space using the by now well-established Atlas 5 rocket. Think of the spacecraft as a mini-shuttle – it’s about four times smaller and based on designs that NASA and Russian engineers experimented with in the 80’s and 90’s, using on-board propulsion systems derived from SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rocket motor technology – technology being designed and developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) for Scaled Composites. No word as of yet about cost for potential passengers, but the primary Dream Chaser Space System mission is to provide NASA with a safe, reliable commercially-operated transportation service for crew and cargo to the ISS and back to Earth and not just to carry out low Earth orbital flights.
Closer to reality, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) will be happy to fly you into low Earth orbit in their Dragon capsule, launched on top of their Falcon 9 rocket as soon as 2015. But as if that isn’t exciting enough yet, Elon Musk announced that he will be looking to send people to Mars for a cool half a million dollars – not too bad when you put it in perspective. It will be a trip of months, not hours at only a few times the cost of a low orbit ride. Elon Musk might truly be the real Tony Stark – where is the suit though? SpaceX confirmed in 2012 that their target launch price for crewed Dragon flights is $140,000,000 which means a solid $20,000,000 per seat if the maximum crew of 7 is aboard – still about 3 times cheaper than Soyuz but cheap it is not!
If you are looking for the feeling of weightlessness without actually becoming an astronaut and losing a fortune doing so, then there’s an astronomically cheaper option out there. Zero Gravity Corporation (also known as ZERO-G) is an American company in Virginia that offers flights aboard a cargo plane that goes into a parabolic arc. This way, it actually simulates weightlessness for its passengers, at a mere $4,950, plus tax. A flight lasts 90 to 100 minutes, and consists of fifteen parabolas, each of which simulates about 30 seconds of reduced gravity: one that simulates Martian gravity (one third of Earth’s), two that simulate Lunar gravity (one sixth of Earth’s), and 12 that simulate weightlessness. That’s value for money if you ask us!
Next time, what is Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos up to, and more!
Well, there is XCOR Aerospace‘s Lynx which would get you into space for $95.000 and you can book (and check out the video) here. It would just be you and the pilot experiencing a half-hour suborbital flight to 100 km (330,000 feet) and then returning to a landing at the takeoff runway, but for less than half the price of a ticket aboard Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipTwo it sounds like value for money. With a fast turnaround time (they don’t use any separate launch vehicle – as it is basically a cutting edge plane that does the whole trip from the ground to suborbit by itself using only rocket engines), they are looking at launching four flights a day meaning you could still take the family out for a nice day out.
Starchaser Industries offers a seat to anyone able to cough up £98.000 (currently around $150.000), + VAT (slap another 20% on top of that basically) and seems to take things in two stages. Their first approach will consist of a 3 person reusable space capsule called Thunderstar which will be launched on top of their own Starchaser 5 rocket. Stage 2 of their plans will feature an 8-seater spaceplane that will take off vertically on a modified version of said rocket. You can check out more info here, but as their news is 2+ years outdated, perhaps this one bit the dust already.
Next time, we’ll look at SpaceX‘s Dragon capsule and many more. Stay tuned!
Blue Origin is a privately funded aerospace company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, the man who made his billions – that’s billions, not millions – proving to the world that e-commerce was a viable business model. The secretive company has since 2000 been working on a suborbital crew capsule, conducting tests under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
Blue Origin is developing a variety of technologies, with a focus on rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space. The company’s aim is to launch a spacecraft called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space in 1961), a biconic design that can hold at least three astronauts, using a reusable first stage rocket to limit operating costs.
The company motto is Gradatim Ferociter, Latin for “Step-by-Step, Ferociously”. Not to be confused with Richard Dreyfuss’ “Baby Steps” in What About Bob? Besides all that, Bezos also seems to have developed a liking towards the Apollo program, as his privately funded expedition recently recovered two F1 engines from the bottom of the sea – you can read all about it here. Nice! We’re looking forward to the day where he decides to breathe some new life in the Zissou Society.
Back on topic, Blue Origin makes use of its own spaceport located about 25 miles north of Van Horn, Texas as well as NASA’s test facilities where they in October 2012 tested part of their new rocket engine. NASA In the meantime is hoping its CCP funding will pay off by 2017, because currently it is depending on the Russian Soyuz for supplying the International Space Station. It seems the burden of exploring space is shifting more and more from NASA, ESA and the like to private sector companies – let’s all look forward to the adventures that are bound to unfold in the coming decade – Blue Origin is definitely making steps in the right direction to be a part of it all.
Spaceport America can be found in New Mexico, United States and is the world’s first purpose-built, commercial spaceport. It opened for business in October 2011 and since then has already signed up several permanent tenants: UP Aerospace was the first, Sir Richard Branson‘s Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo fleet, and just this May Elon Musk‘s SpaceX signed a three-year lease.
Plans for the spaceport can be traced back to the early 90’s but construction only started in 2006, the year Richard Branson announced that the new Virgin Galactic would make New Mexico its world headquarters. Completed in August 2012 at a total cost of $209 million, the site covers 18.000 acres (about 72 square kilometers or 28 square miles), and you can check out the facility map here.
Designed in collaboration with Foster + Partners, a UK company with extensive designing airport buildings (view their stunning picture gallery here), the spaceport lies low within the desert-like landscape of the site in New Mexico and seen from the historic El Camino Real trail, the organic form of the terminal resembles a rise in the landscape. Foster + Partners managed to achieve the prestigious LEED Platinum accreditation with its design. From the low-lying form dug into the landscape to exploit the thermal mass acting as a buffer from the extremes of the New Mexico climate as well as catching the westerly winds for ventilation, the natural light that enters via skylights, to a glazed façade reserved for the terminal building, establishing a platform for the coveted views onto the runway, this is one stunning sight to behold.
The first images (hopefully in 2014!) of space tourists lifting off from this futuristic spaceport will herald an exciting era for space travel – let the future begin!
Let’s take a closer look at SpaceX. If the fact that it was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk (aka “the real Tony Stark“) doesn’t guarantee it success (he did after all start PayPal and Tesla Motors amongst others!), the numbers do most of the talking: with nearly 50 launches on its manifest, representing more than $4 billion in contracts, SpaceX continues to push the boundaries of space technology down at 1 Rocket Road in California where their 3000 staff are headquartered.
A year ago, SpaceX successfully launched a private unmanned spaceship on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), which made a bold statement that one of their main objectives is to offer a viable alternative to the now retired space shuttle program. With that effort, SpaceX‘s Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to attach to the space station, deliver cargo, and return to earth.
The latest results of that are WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo (featured together in the picture above), the former (WK2) being the carrier aircraft and the latter (SS2) being the manned sub-orbital spacecraft that will fulfil the dreams of those lucky 500+ people who had the funding and the guts to sign up to go where few have gone before.
In October 2012, Virgin Galactic acquired full ownership of The Spaceship Company which marked the successful completion of a long-term strategy for The Spaceship Company, in that they by then had built out the manufacturing and assembly facilities, and had the necessary workforce and assets in place to start building Virgin Galactic‘s commercial fleet. While the first WhiteKnightTwo was christened VMS Eve after Richard Branson‘s mother, the Virgin Galactic spaceline plans to operate a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes for commercial spaceflight starting from 2014 although it would be good to note that this day moved back several times already.